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A CurtainUp Review
Nielsen's Miss Witherspoon, whose earthbound name is actually Veronica, is a middle-aged curmudgeon. Once one of actor Rex Harrison's many wives, she's done with Rex as well with men in general. As a matter of fact "she's kind of done with everything" which, given the state of the world, is not surprising for someone who has always found it "hard to get on the hope bandwagon." The final straw for her mounting discontent turns out to be the 1979 announcement that Skylab would eventually be falling from the sky. After her opening telephone conversation with an unseen friend In addition, Miss With, Nielsen next appears after she's committed suicide in the 1990s. She's now in a neither heaven or hell sky blue place known as the bardo (the Tibetan Buddhists anteroom where a soul awaits reincarnation, from the Tibetan word " bar" meaning "in between").
Veronica's mentor and guide through the rules for choosing the next life is the charming sari-clad Maryamma (charmingly played by Mahira Kakkar). Quite a departure from the monster nun of Durang's earlier skewering of formal religion, Sister Mary Ignatious Explains It All! But for all her charm, Maryamma is unswerving in her insistence that "all souls must keep reincarnating until they reach true wisdom." No exceptions! It's Maryamma who actually names Veronica Miss Witherspoon ("It's our nickname for your spirit. You're like some negative English woman in an Agatha Christie book who everybody finds bothersome.") As she explains it, the way to a clear aura rather than that Christie-like "brown aura" is to experience several more lives in order to be attuned to other people's auras and thus accept that "were all part of the collective human soul."
Veronica cum Miss Witherspoon fiercely resists being reincarnated and the idea that she's already lived several lives (she pooh-poohs the suggestion that she failed to save her sister from being put to death during the 17th century Massachusetts witch hunts with "I've seen The Crucible"). She demands to see the St. Peter her Christian upbringing has led her to believe will dispatch her to heaven or purgatory -- though, this being a play which looks at the best, worst and most puzzling aspects of all religious doctrines, she declares herself quite willing to settle for the Jewish version of a non-afterlife, "a kind of prolonged anesthesia.". But, of course, Maryamma and the powers that be in the bardo prevail and Victoria-Miss Witherspoon is reincarnated not once but repeatedly. These reincarnations transform her into a helpless infant, an abused teenager and at one point, a dog -- all with absurd results that always end with her return to the bardo.
In the hands of a less skillfull and imaginative writer and actress, these reincarnations might test anyone's tolerance for absurdist flights of fancy and characters tilting toward caricatures but Durang's satiric dialogue with its all over the cultural map allusions and Nielsen's brilliant persona switches will win over even the most confirmed realists. Her troubled teenager is as touching as her doomed dog is hilariously true to dog-like behavior.
Though the play revolves around Nielsen, her name is part of the ensemble listing below the title, and rightly so. Colleen Werthmann and Jeremy Shamos gracefully handle multiple roles, all both real and preposterously exaggerated -- Werthmann as two mothers, one loving and one mean; Shamos even more of a chameleon as the dads, a dog owner, drug dealer and, in the bardo, as a Wise Man, a.k.a. Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. Another noteworthy multi-tasker, Linda Gravátt, plays the reincarnated teen-aged Veronica's kindly teacher and Jesus in the guise of a sassy black woman in her best Sunday go to meetin' hat.
Jess Goldstein's costumes and David Korins' set, brightly illuminated by Jeff Croiter, all support one's sense of turning the pages of a pop-up book of fables. Emily Mann conducts the journeys between the uncertainty in the bardo, the problematic reincarnations on earth so that no laugh misses its landing -- starting with one of the funniest ever pre-show cellphone/candy announcements and using the running joke about Rex Harrison and My Fair Lady (which, unlike most such extended humor, doesn't wear out its welcome) to send the audience out of this theater humming.
For Durang's venture into the world of musical theater, check out our review of the recent world premiere of Adrift in Macao
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